Sweet Land rode a most unique path toward becoming a full fledged musical. “A Gravestone Made of Wheat” a short story written by Will Weaver, appeared in a 1989 Minneapolis Star Tribune Sunday magazine. In 2005, Ali Selim went on to write and direct an indie movie based on the story and re-titled it Sweet Land. Last year, playwrights Perrin Post and Laurie Flanigan Hegge with the aid of composer Dina Maccabee, tinkered with the premise a bit but held on to the primary characters of the story and transformed the work into a musical. Taproot is now staging the show’s successful West Coast premiere. The focus of the play is on Olaf Torvik, a hard working Norwegian farmer living in rural Minnesota and Inge Altenberg, a German woman who in 1920 has sailed across the sea from Norway to marry the man she has never met. The current concerns about the acceptance of immigrants into our country resonate throughout the evening, but the natural beauty of this unabashedly romantic love story is Sweet Land’s most important gift to its audiences.
Tyler Todd Kimmel and Molli Corcoran excel as the two young lovers. As Olaf, Kimmel maintains an awkward diffidence throughout much of the play. He is obviously a good, hard working man, but is penned in by his fellow townsfolk’s prejudice and moral superiority. His neighbors seem to be intent on blocking the marriage of him and his young German fiancé. The wounds of World War I still smart and characters like Pastor Sorenson (an earnest Hugh Hastings) and farmer Alvin (a charming Chris Shea) are very reluctant to accept the pairing of the young couple. “Not One of Us” is one of the important songs in Act One. By the latter scenes in Act II, Kimmel’s character convincingly finds his own voice, enabling him to stand up for love and confront his neighbors. The source of much of this strength comes from the delightful Molli Corcoran’s portrayal of Inge.
Upon arriving in Park Rapids Minnesota, this young immigrant knows but one or two English phrases, but Corcoran embodies her character with enough warmth and gumption to easily grab the focus of the play. One of the major joys of the production is watching Inge gain her footing in this strange new world and transition into an essential force, teaching both her potential husband and her suspicious neighbors how effectively love and goodness can conquer many a social and economic road block. A special shout out here to Accent and Dialect Coach Katya Landau. I have enjoyed Corcoran in a number of Seattle shows, most notably her work as the talented Kitty Clive in Taproot’s Joyful Noise. Yet, in this show I was ready to believe she really was meeting the English language for the very first time!
The talented Michael Winters adds another conflict into the mix when as a hard-boiled banker, he insists that Alvin meet his financial obligations or lose his farm. The moneylender’s determination to undo Alvin affirms the truth of Olaf’s observation, “Banking and farming don’t mix.” April Poland has a good deal of fun playing Alvin’s wife, a strong woman managing both her feckless husband and an ever-growing horde of offspring.
While the play’s tunes are somewhat forgettable, they consistently forward the story line and are all sung with gusto. Here again, Molli Corcoran shines with a lovely Broadway-ready soprano voice. Michael Matlock leads a capable four-piece band.
Scenic designer Mark Lund provides an animated background projection delineating which building we’re at in Park Rapids. This feature helps keep the settings straight, but the simplicity of the artwork reminded too much of a South Park Cartoon.
Director Karen Lund leading with a deft hand, ensures that each character has time to become fully realized during the course of the evening. A key focus for her in this work is the importance of a community. In her notes she observes, “Sweet Land is the story of a stranger becoming a neighbor, an outsider becoming a friend, the other becoming family.” Such welcome concepts to ponder in the summer of 2018!
Sweet Land runs through August 18 at the Taproot Theatre Company’s Jewell Mainstage Theatre, 204 N 85th Street, in the heart of Greenwood. For more ticket information call 206-781-9707 or go to taproottheatre.org.